Sunday, January 9, 2022

Alex Sakes

Alex Sakes, 25, is a life-long resident of the Columbia Pike community. A political activist and photographer, he was recently elected to serve as president of the Penrose Neighborhood Association.

"I was born extremely premature at just twenty-seven weeks. I weighed only one pound, four ounces when I was delivered in May of 1996. The doctors supervising my mother told her that I would be lucky to survive past the first twenty-four hours, and if I did, I was going to be severely 
mentally and physically impaired. Miraculously, by God's grace, I survived. I am truly blessed to have my full mental and physical faculties about me, with the exception of a bicuspid aortic heart valve which I had replaced just before my twenty-first birthday.

My family and I have lived here in Penrose since November 1999, moving here from Washington D.C. when I was three-and-a-half years old. My parents bought our place in Westhampton Mews off of South Rolfe Street in 1999, paying roughly $150,000 for our home. As recently as the last twelve months, we have had neighbors selling adjacent units, the same style, same layout, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath for as much as $650,000. We certainly could never afford to live in this area if we tried to buy in now. With the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2, and amongst numerous other developments & gentrification over the past several decades, property values continue to skyrocket. Even affording a one-bedroom rental apartment here can be unattainable for many working-class people. 

I went to public school in the community, first at Hoffman-Boston Elementary, and then H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program. During my time at Hoffman-Boston, I was one of maybe five white students in the entire school. I was perpetually surrounded by classmates who looked different than me. I grew up under this sort of “color-blind” mentality, for lack of a better word. All of my childhood friends were of varying cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Across the street we had a burgeoning Mongolian population, many of whom were classmates of mine. My closest childhood friends, Leo & Christian Nolasco, were from Guatemala. They lived just a few doors down from my family home for most of my childhood. 

I am Jewish on my mother's side, and on my father's side, I’m a quarter Greek. My paternal grandfather, James C. Sakes, who served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy during World War II, is one of three relatives of mine buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He rests beside his wife, Betty Jane Sakes, who was a Marine during World War II, and my father's younger brother, Matthew Sakes, who died as a young adult in a car accident. 

My whole life experience has taken place along Columbia Pike. To this day, I recall fond memories of my mother and me walking up and down the Pike. I can remember all the old grocery stores, shopping centers, and what the Pike used to look like before the construction of the major high-rises and densification. I remember the old Adam's Mill shopping center up the street with the old Giant Food grocery store on the left, and then on the right, the Giant Pharmacy, and in-between was the beloved Cowboy CafĂ©, all of which where Penrose Square currently stands. 

I went to H-B Woodlawn for middle and high school. It was a complete “180” from what I had experienced as an elementary school student at Hoffman-Boston. I went from being one of quite literally a handful of white students there - and having friends and neighbors who were all Black, Latino, & Asian-American - to getting thrusted into a school with a student body that was around 95% white. 

I spent eight of my most formative years at H-B Woodlawn and graduated in 2014. I can trace my initial interest in photography back to the fantastic photography teachers I had there; Joan DeMoss, Rachel Eisley, and Tom Mallan. I thank each of them for helping foster my now life-long passion for photography. I initially got exposed to photography as an elective course. At the time, we had film cameras and a fully-fledged darkroom, which was really unique. We got to process our own film from start to finish, doing everything by hand including mixing all the chemicals and doing our own prints. A year or so later the darkroom was replaced by a computer lab, and the film cameras ended up being replaced by digital cameras. Outside of the occasional homework assignment, I didn’t really take it upon myself to engage in photography as an artistic outlet until my senior year. AT that time some my friends who were members of the LGBTQ+ community invited me to join them at the Washington D.C. Capital Pride Festival. While I'm not in the LGBTQ+ community myself, I thought it would be a cool opportunity to try my hand at taking some photographs of an actual real-world event. So, I asked my teacher, Tom Mallan, if I could borrow one of the digital cameras to go take some photos of the parade. I didn't think they were going to be any good, much less worthy of submission to any art competitions. While editing the photos in class a week after the event had concluded, I narrowed down my top ten to fifteen favorites to publish on social media, simply for my own amusement. Tom happened to look over my shoulder and remarked upon how powerful the images were. He told me I should consider submitting a portfolio of my favorites to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the national student scholarship and recognition program. So I took around twelve photos from the event and formally submitted them, not expecting to hear a peep back. Several weeks later, Tom came running in with the results. I didn't expect to hear my name, but lo and behold he announced that I had won not a bronze key, not a silver key, but a gold key for my portfolio of photojournalism shots. In addition to the Gold Key, I won a Silver Key for a separate portrait photograph I took of a classmate. I was totally over the moon, completely floored that I'd won anything. On top of those accolades, I submitted a shot I made of the Air Force Memorial to an art contest for Arlington Public School students. It ended up winning and was featured in the County Manager's office for about a year. For so long I thought I had no artistic talent, but unbeknownst to myself, I did. It was simply a matter of putting myself out there and taking a chance on myself. To this day, I couldn’t be more thankful to Tom and my other photography teachers for believing in me and my potential. 

My father has always been very politically engaged, and as a byproduct of that engagement I was perpetually subjected to liberal news programing from channels such as MSNBC. I had always considered myself a Democrat as a teenager, but never really got politically engaged until I started college at the University of Mary Washington. I went to my first Young Democrats meeting in 2016, when Bernie Sanders was vying for the Democratic nomination for President. As many young voters of my generation, I was a humongous Bernie Sanders fanatic. His candidacy was really the spark that got myself and millions of other young adults politically engaged, as he spoke truth to power about the vast & ever-growing disparities in wealth between our nation’s rich and poor, the need for universal healthcare and climate justice, to bringing racial and social justice, Bernie spoke in plain English about these issues to my generation. He never talked down to us young folks or told us to wait our turn when it came to running for political office. He spoke eloquently about how it was my generation that is and will continue to be most impacted by these ever-present inequities. I vividly remember hopping in the car with several classmates to go see him speak during the primary; it was like a rock concert. It was at this point that I personally involved myself politically on campus. My friends and I would frequently go to rallies such as the March for Our Lives against gun violence in Washington. I would bring my camera and snap some very powerful imagery of my fellow activists out in the streets. I quickly got involved with our UMW NAACP chapter, showing up to meetings and organizing rallies and sit-ins with my fellow students.

I started to pay attention to local races, particularly to candidates in my college’s area who represented Fredericksburg in the Virginia General Assembly. I quickly learned how important it was for Democrats to regain a majority in our state legislature in order to make an impact on things I was so passionate about, like the increasing our state minimum wage and criminal justice reform. Around 2018 when I became aware of a young gentleman named Joshua Cole who was a bit of a local celebrity, especially to those within the UMW Young Democrats chapter. Josh lived in UMW’s state legislative district and had previously run to represent the 28th House of Delegates district in 2017, losing by less than 100 votes.  On a whim, I added him on Facebook. To my immense surprise, he reached out to me and mentioned that he was planning on running again in 2019 and wanted to know if I was interested in interning for him. I jumped at the opportunity, and during my senior year he would take me around with him to numerous community events. He introduced me to local politicians on the City Council, members of the Fredericksburg chapter of the NAACP, and other local artists and activists. 

By the time I'd finished up my coursework in the spring of 2019, I was sitting there scratching my head, wondering what I'm going to do for a job after graduation. So, I ended up reaching out to Josh and asked him if I could work for him full-time, and he said, "absolutely!"  I served as his Communications Director until our historic victory in November 2019. He became the youngest Black state legislator in Virginia history, not yet even thirty years of age. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my young adult life getting to work full-time on such a huge political race. It was so cool getting to schmooze with all these big name politicians like Senator Mark Warner, Senator Tim Kaine, Governor Terry McAuliffe, along with all our local members of Congress. It was a huge educational opportunity and a way for me to get my name out there, and to be able to use my photography; it really all intersected perfectly. I would assist with Josh’s debate prep, his scheduling, social media posts, website, campaign literature, digital ads, etc. I would take my camera with me to all our events and take all these great photos. We raised $1.4 million for a House of Delegates race in what was one of the most hotly watched races across the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was so proud of our incredible team and our indispensable volunteers, donors, and supporters. 

As I was gearing up to move from Fredericksburg back to Arlington, I got a call from a gentleman named Chanda Choun who I had supported from afar when he ran for the Arlington County Board in 2018. He ended up losing the primary, but he caught my attention as this young, energetic Cambodian with a strong military background as an Army Reserve veteran. Traditionally, politics has always been an older, white man's game, especially in well-to-do areas like Arlington County. So, I was very excited to see someone so diverse challenging traditional expectations. Chanda quickly let me know of his intentions to run again for the Arlington County Board, and that he was in-need of a campaign manager. He valued having someone who was a lifelong Arlingtonian with prior campaign experience at the helm. I jumped at the opportunity and ended up serving as campaign manager. We hit the ground running in the winter of 2019, but wound up completely gutted by the COVID-19 pandemic that began in early 2020. Around that time, County Board member Erik Gutshall tragically passed away, which triggered a special election for his seat. We had a decision to make, either continue to sit on our hands during the nationwide lockdown caused by the deadly pandemic or try our hand at running for the vacant seat. It was an extremely hard decision to make, but we decided to jump into the special election to fill the vacancy. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, only around 150 Arlington County Democratic Committee party insiders were able to vote in this ranked-choice primary. There simply wasn’t enough time to hold a by-mail election, and we certainly couldn’t force folks to risk their lives going to the polls in-person. Chanda unfortunately didn’t prevail. He ran again in 2021, allowing all of Arlington County voters to voice their opinion. While we came up short in the primary, I was floored by the outpouring of intense support and dedication by our passionate volunteers who gave so much of their time and money in support of our vision for Arlington. We quickly moved forward after the election, and fully honored Mr. Karantonis’ victory. Chanda is certainly not one to let any loss set him back. He has an incredible backstory of triumph in the face of almost insurmountable adversity. He is currently keeping busy as a business owner and working two forty-hour-a-week contract jobs. We're young guys, we've got time for future political ambitions. What I am most appreciative of is how Chanda brought me into the limelight here in Arlington and helped me foster a sense of community that I'd previously never known here. I was so worried about coming back home after Josh’s campaign, worrying about whether anyone was going to know me, and how I was going to meet people. I've continued to keep myself extremely active in the area with social justice organizations like Arlington for Justice. I do most of Arlington for Justice’s media work and have been honored to capture all of the incredible events we have put on these past two years, such as a 5K run in honor of Breonna Taylor and others who have fallen victim to police violence across the country. These issues matter to me. My parents instilled in me the values of looking out for other people, caring deeply about the community, and always giving of yourself. I've always been an extremely privileged young man, socially and economically, to continue to stay in this area, to have even grown up in this area, gone to the schools I've gone to. That is very personal to me and I'm very reflective on that, I always want to give back in any way I can. 

I’m extremely honored to have recently been elected President of the Penrose Neighborhood Association, my neighborhood of over twenty-three years and counting. I'm probably the youngest person to ever take the mantle of a civic association president here in town. Arlington has a very respected history of civic engagement and neighborhood activism. It is not gate-kept per se, but especially in this economy it's much harder for somebody who's younger and working full-time to get themselves involved at the same level that somebody who is older, retired, and has decades worth of local political experience to really take the reins for something like this. I had never gone to a civic association meeting before I had met Pete Durgan, our previous president. She lives down the street from me on Sixth Street and had reached out to me after Chanda's campaign was over to see if I had any interest in becoming the secretary of the civic association. I kind of blew it off at the time. Fast forward to summer 2021 when she and I were taking a walk to the Air Force Memorial before the 4th of July. Pete mentioned that she was planning on resigning and was actively searching for somebody to take her place. She mentioned that she wasn’t having any luck finding anyone willing to take on the responsibility. So I said to Pete "How about I do it? I would love to do it." We ended up having an election this past October and I was unanimously elected. It's been an incredibly enriching experience ever since. I'm still essentially getting my feet wet with all of this but am taking it day by day and taking the initiative with stride. 

One of my current big concerns for the neighborhood, and one that’s on a lot of people's minds, is the ongoing development, or as others might say, gentrification of Columbia Pike. Many, including myself, are dismayed to see our Black and Brown, Asian-American, and Latinx populations decline as rental rates continue to skyrocket. In my lifetime alone I’ve witnessed the loss of numerous minority-owned businesses along Columbia Pike in favor of a much whiter, younger crowd with disposable income setting up shop and moving into the area.  Thus, I’m a big advocate for expansion of affordable housing and initiatives to help ensure that those who have resided in Arlington for generations are not pushed out. I've watched many life-long friends have to move out of the area, down south to Woodbridge or elsewhere, because Arlington has become vastly too expensive for their families. I tell people all the time that had my own parents not bought into the market when we did in 1999, you wouldn’t know my name.

I’m also a strong proponent of local electoral reform, favoring a by-district approach to county board elections. We actually had local districts before 1930. They were scrapped at the height of the Jim Crow era to perpetuate a white power dynamic. I hope to see districts once again in my lifetime, as I’m a proponent of Arlingtonians having a specific board member to go to when problems arise within their neighborhood, rather than trying to elicit a response from all at-large members. 

I hold a meeting for the Penrose neighborhood community every third Tuesday of the month where I have to guest speakers come to talk about upcoming community events and pressing issues.  I’m passionate about giving folks the time to sit and meet with me one-on-one to share their community concern whenever needed. I’m here to serve the 7300+ residents here across Penrose first and foremost. Right now, a lot of older folks who have lived in Penrose for decades are the type of folks we have tune-in to our monthly meetings. I’m really passionate about getting other young people in the neighborhood involved, too. I'm gearing up for a big spring membership drive and a website redevelopment to bring us forward with style. Hopefully the pandemic subsides a bit by then and I can go door-to-door and introduce myself. 
Overall, I would love to see the neighborhood and the community at-large here retain its family-friendly charm. I don't want to see us go the way of Manhattan, where everywhere you look there's a high rise, and you can't even look out over your balcony and see any sort of the greenery. I love the fact that we have two fantastic public parks in the neighborhood and I will always push for more green space where reasonable and feasible. I will certainly do anything in my power to ensure that Penrose is an attractive, livable community that people of all backgrounds can afford to live in, start a business, and raise a family. I can’t turn back to the clock on a lot of things. I know that we are going to see housing prices continue to rise with the introduction of Amazon’s HQ2 in Crystal City just minutes from the neighborhood, but I will continue to support the push to have Amazon partner with our community to preserve affordable housing units as much as possible across the County. 

Looking towards the future, I have campaign offers for 2023, so we'll see what happens. At the moment I’m very pleased to run my own full-time professional photography business and have found incredible early success. I’m deeply honored to be entrusted to capture powerful, intimate moments across the county, both public and private. To get paid to capture my community at its best is an honor and an immense privilege that I will never take for granted. I have a big heart for people and I will always stand up for those around me, wherever my travels may take me. For right now, I couldn’t be prouder to call Penrose my home, and I wouldn’t want it any other way."

Photography and interview by Lloyd Wolf.


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